by Zoë Pollock
The burger flipper seems quintessential:
I grew up on Long Island and my first job during high school was working at the Burger King near where I lived but a couple of towns over from the school district I went to. It was the 1970's, also known as the age of total ugliness, and I wore a paper hat and a brown and orange striped polyester short sleeved tunic (with a plastic name tag, of course.) It was hot, greasy work but I loved that job.
It was a fresh start with people my age but not with all the baggage from my own school – no more outcast, as long as I worked hard I got respect and I got paid. And when you are young and feel trapped, money is freedom. OK I couldn't permanently flee the Island on the wages of a part-time job at Burger King but in a way my job at Burger King was my sanctuary from the turmoil in my teenage life…and I got paid! Paid enough to no longer have to ask my mom for money, paid enough to be able to go out after work, and best of all, paid enough to take the train into the City where there was life and vibrancy and freedom and adventure unlike the suburb I lived in but wanted to flee.
After leaving college with a History degree and an overall lack of motivation I found myself working as a beer deliveryman for six years in Buffalo, NY. I had to lug cases and kegs of beer into some of the nastiest bars, restaurants and convenience stores around (try doing that in four feet of snow when it's two degrees outside). I was robbed more than once, my back ached daily and I spent hour after hour listening to people ask for "free samples." I hated every single day of my life during that time but look back on it now and really appreciate what that job did for me. The thought of spending the next 30 years on a beer truck made me get off my ass and go back to school to earn my teacher certification certificate. Whenever I hear a fellow teacher complain about how hard teaching is I just have to laugh. Compared to delivering 100 cases of 40 oz. malt liquor into the basement of a filthy neighborhood convenience store, teaching high school students in an air-conditioned room is a snap.
This reader's email rings so true:
I have a good job in many respects now, but there was something very tangible about that kind of work. I could explain my job to you in 5 seconds and I could tell very easily whether I was doing a good job. Today? Well, it's a little more vague (I'm a "policy analyst"). It's not that I want to be a stock boy again, but I certainly appreciate the trades more than I once did. I wish I could build a house or fix a car.
When I was 10 years old, mowing lawns all summer, it was the 12-year-olds with the paper routes who had it good. When I was 21 and making plywood in a factory in the Carolina summer heat, it was the guys who got to drive the forklifts around all day moving loads of lumber. In my late 20's when I was traveling around the country fixing computer problems at remote sites, it was the people back at headquarters who sat in meetings all day thinking of new ways to make life harder for me and my comrades. Today, as an IT manager working 50-hour weeks at a big company, it's the CEO and board who just don't seem to understand how hard everybody is working to adapt to their shifting priorities.
If my 21-year-old self could hear my 42-year-old self complain about how hard I work, he'd certainly respond with sarcastic sympathy and say something highly insulting. And that's the big lesson I've learned over all of the jobs I've had: never discount the amount of work people do, regardless of what it is that they do.
Some jobs are worth it just for the advice you pick up:
When I was 15, I got an summer youth job working with the maintenance department of my high school. It was a really tiny town in rural Kansas, a really tiny high school, and the maintenance department was my best friend’s mother. She had six children and an alcoholic husband, and was one of the hardest working woman I have ever known. It was physical work, I scrubbed, and sanded, and painted and varnished floors and walls in the classrooms, locker rooms, and the gym. One day on our lunch break, she said to me something that I have never forgotten. She said, “I am not here to teach you how to clean and paint, I am here to teach you that it is better to work with your brain, and not your back. “
I just turned 70 but still remember the advice that was given to me by an old black man that I was working with digging a ditch. I was in college at the time and was working for my fathers company in the plumbing construction business. Otis and I were digging a trench in a sub-basement [probably 30 feet from the surface] on a very hot and humid day in the midwest. As we took a water break Otis said to me " Mike I want you to remember this day of Mike and Otis in this ditch next winter when you are back in school…it will help you study harder. It certainly did.
My first job was at McDonald's. My boss was a former drill sergeant, and he had some strong ideas about how things would be done. Every surface had to shine. No fingerprints anywhere. Everyone shared the jobs no one wanted: cleaning the bathrooms and picking up the trash on the lot. And women were not allowed to cook the burgers; grilling was a man's job. Other than that last nonsense, he gave me a great work ethic, and I never forgot what he taught me about self-respect: "You don't have to be proud of your job, but you must always be proud of your work."
And ah, the restroom lesson:
Back in my student days I had a job doing janitorial work, including cleaning bathrooms. The thing about that job though was that it turned out to be oddly satisfying. I spent my every other waking hour nose down in a book or scribbling notes and when I went to clean it was kind of soothing. The only thing to concentrate on was swishing and wiping and spraying. Giving the restroom order was sort of restful to me. There's something therapeutic in Pine Sol and a fresh urinal cake.
And I am to this day extremely tidy in a public bathroom or when using a hotel room or any space some stranger will have to clean. I'm always aware that someone is having to do a job that no one really wants to do and I don't want to make it harder.